Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf (CCASG)
Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s answers to media questions during a special session of the Valdai International Discussion Club on the Middle East, Moscow, March 31, 2021
Question: The theme of our conference is The Middle East in Search for Lost Awakening. Yesterday’s debate was rather lively. The participants discussed the extent to which the Middle East is an actor in international relations, the region’s dynamics in terms of its global position, and whether it is possible to say that the Arab Spring is over. What do you think about the role of the Middle East’s role in the modern world?
Sergey Lavrov: Decades ago, when hydrocarbons became the driving force of global development, the region acquired tremendous geopolitical significance and became an arena for games motivated by attempts to gain access to resources.
The Suez Canal, an intersection of numerous international routes, is located there. We have seen what happened when a container carrier manoeuvred unsuccessfully in this water artery.
I believe that the region will retain its significance even when humankind converts to a hydrocarbon-free energy sector. This goal has been set for 2050 and 2060. It is quite possible that hydrocarbons will become less significant. Nevertheless, considering the strategic importance of the Mediterranean Sea and the Persian Gulf, I have no doubt that major players will remain interested in this region. Unfortunately, this interest now boils down to rivalry that often involves undiplomatic methods.
We propose that the Middle East should cease to be an arena where the interests of leading powers clash. It is necessary to balance these interests and to reconcile them among the countries of the Middle East and North Africa, as well as among non-regional partners.
We should not forget that our proposal to draft a security concept for the Persian Gulf zone does not cover this region alone. This proposal implies that all regional protagonist countries, primarily the Arab monarchies and Iran, should gather at one table. Such organisations as the Arab League, the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and the European Union should also join them. This configuration will make it possible to bring together representatives of all actors significant for the Middle East and North African countries. We should try and launch a process akin to the Helsinki Process and accomplish something similar in the region in the hope that, unlike the pan-European Helsinki Process, we could achieve better results.
The pan-European process was launched on the basis of compromise ensuring a balance of interests, and the West began to demolish it later on. Today, they are trying to use the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which was established as a common regional entity, for advancing their own interests.
I hope that we will be able to create more viable agreements in the Middle East and North African region, and that such agreements will allow this region to evolve in the direction of a balance of interests and not to become a territory of confrontation among major players once again.
Question: The People’s Republic of China (PRC), with which we maintain friendly and strategic relations, has recently become more active in the Middle East. Observers and analysts are speaking about a fundamentally new stage in China’s foreign policy, including its increased presence in the Middle East and its interest in the region. It is notable that China’s latest initiatives are similar, to a degree, to the initiatives of the Russian Federation. This concerns, for example, the idea of collective security for the Persian Gulf, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and several other aspects. What can you say on this topic? How should we regard this Chinese activity?
Sergey Lavrov: China is a global power with interests in all parts of the world. The PRC is promoting its economic projects within the framework of the Belt and Road concept and a community of shared future for humankind. It indeed has global interests, which are based on real global possibilities.
There is no denying that the Belt and Road concept rests on an extremely serious economic foundation. This has been recently discussed at the events the EU held jointly with the Americans within the NATO framework. They have openly formulated the task of creating an alternative to this economic “expansion.”
We believe in honest competition. In this case, mala fide methods are being used against China, just as against the Russian Federation. Relevant examples include the attempts being made by the United States and Europe, which is following in its wake, to adopt restrictions on the most trivial pretexts, to undermine their rivals’ positions and to introduce artificial restrictions on global markets contrary to the norms of the World Trade Organisation (WTO).
Of course, China has a right to protect its interests, just as we are doing in that region. China has recently proposed hosting a direct dialogue between Israel and Palestine, just as we did in the past. Regarding Afghanistan, there is a long queue for the right to host a meeting on Afghanistan. This queue has recently dispersed, though, and after the Istanbul meeting the Afghan authorities have proposed holding such meetings in Kabul because no one is willing to host them anymore. It is an interesting story. We can discuss it as well, if you would like.
As for China, it has advanced an initiative they describe as a multilateral dialogue platform for the Gulf region. Not only China and Russia are promoting these ideas. Iran has advanced the Hormuz peace initiative, which should include, at least at the initial stage, only the coastal Gulf countries. But we believe that the external players, which can seriously influence the situation in the region, should take part in it from the very beginning.
There is also a French initiative called the European Maritime Awareness Mission in the Strait of Hormuz. It could become a component part of a new agreement, if confidence-building measures and other arrangements are complemented with observers. I believe that it could be a useful measure, if all the parties agree to it. Competition in these matters can do no harm. When competition is an element of the development of common approaches and as such helps to coordinate common basic principles for a future settlement, it is a welcome trend. I don’t think that China views its own initiative as the only one all of us must accept. For our part, we do not insist on the formula set forth in our Collective Security Concept for the Persian Gulf. We are inviting all parties to dialogue. As the Chinese say, let a hundred flowers bloom. We should come together, exchange ideas and balance interests. Without this, everything will be unsteady and fragile.
Question: I would like to return to your first answer. The word inclusiveness is often used as a necessary element of diplomacy. I would venture to doubt it being so effective, because there are so many different interests, and sometimes from players who have never had such a role before. If you try to include and consider all their interests, nothing is going to work out. The OSCE you mentioned (or the CSCE at a time when it worked) actually had two interests. Would it not be a good idea to reconsider the approach in the sense that there are interests necessary to solve specific problems, there are interested countries with influence, and there are countries that think they should participate simply because they have to? For prestige, or something. How can a balance be found between including those who need to be included without turning into a version of Noah's Ark that gathered “every kind”?
Sergey Lavrov: Empirically. It is the only way. Until we begin to talk and compare approaches, we will not be able to understand which of them are being promoted for prestige, and which really reflect a sincere interest in solving a problem. In this configuration, there will be more than two interests, as was the case when the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) was convened. But there won't be many. At least the West is already united – this is one interest. Recent meetings have shown that Europe breathed a sigh of relief – was even delighted – when the United States again took it under its wing. European leaders made public statements on this score. The West will have one interest. If someone tries to break that harmony, their attempts will be curbed quickly and effectively.
There are encouraging moments as well when it comes to the Gulf zone proper. The recent restoration of the solidarity and stability of the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf (GCC) at the January 5 summit (a very fruitful and important event, we must give credit to the Americans) is a step in an important direction.
I hope that deal will be the forerunner for an agreement to start dialogue with Iran involving external players. We deliberately designate the five permanent members here. As practice shows, in very diverse conflicts and in different regions, if the five reach a consensus, the rest welcome it. The consensus of the five almost always reflects a balance of interests not only of these five countries, but also of their allies, partners and most other members of the international community. That is why we think it is so important to revive the spirit of cooperation among the five, the spirit of Dumbarton Oaks and everything else that the status of permanent members of the UN Security Council and their veto power involves. That institute was created so that no decisions at the international level could be made if one of these countries objected. We can say that the scope of states that now deserve to be highlighted in international configurations has expanded. We believe Africa, Asia and Latin America should have their additional representatives in the UN Security Council, but the five still play a very important role.
President Vladimir Putin has proposed holding a summit of the five where we want to discuss not so much a specific crisis (although this can always be done), as this institution’s purpose in international politics. Unfortunately, the coronavirus prevented us from meeting last year, although China and France supported the initiative. Britain was waiting for the US to react. Washington said they would be ready, and then London said they would join. But then the pandemic broke out. We are now looking for ways to implement this idea and are holding consultations with our partners. I hope that such a meeting will take place. It is really important.
Question (retranslated): I have two questions for you. First, you and many other speakers have mentioned the Helsinki format. For two days now, we have been discussing the need for new security architecture in the Middle East, because this is the only way to overcome numerous challenges there. The Helsinki format is interesting because it combines hard and soft security issues. The hard ones include freedoms, human rights, etc. This is what the region needs so badly at this point.
Does Russia have some kind of a Middle Eastern Helsinki format, since it is among the region’s largest players? If not, what stands in the way?
The second question is about Syria. In two months, Syria will have presidential elections. Initially, UNSC Resolution 2254, which you supported and co-sponsored, mentioned that the Constitutional Committee must make progress in its work, and some amendments to the constitution must be adopted before the elections. We know that the calendar does not provide for this, and the elections will be held without the adoption of amendments to the constitution. Does this mean that we should forget UNSC Resolution 2254 as part of overcoming the conflict in Syria?
Sergey Lavrov: With regard to the first question, indeed, the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe ended with agreeing upon the Helsinki Final Act based on three security dimensions, namely, military-political, economic and humanitarian. This should underlie the discussions in question focusing on the Gulf, the Middle East and North Africa. This is the only way to arrive at some kind of integrated result. Our proposals include the military-political aspect, such as trust-building action, military budget transparency, mutual invitations to military exercises and joint exercises. There is also a political dimension which includes restoring diplomatic relations between all countries. Economic contacts must be unblocked. This represents an integrated approach.
I would not want this “future” (I hope, real future, not a hypothetical construct) to share the fate of the OSCE in Europe which is plagued by acute military-political problems, given NATO expansion, the consistent advancement of military infrastructure towards Russia’s borders, and the deployment of a permanent military presence in the Baltic states and Norway, under the guise of rotation. Our proposal was for the OSCE to realise its responsibility for the military-political situation in Europe and to stimulate agreements between Russia and NATO. NATO members flat out refuse to even discuss the military trust-building steps that we have come up with, including our proposal to agree on withdrawing exercises away from the contact line to an agreed distance and determining the distance of closest approach of aircraft and ships. Jens Stoltenberg said Russia refuses to be part of the Russia-NATO Council. We do not. It’s just that we do not want to sit there and listen to people talking about Ukraine. NATO has nothing to do with Ukraine. As always, whenever they propose to convene the Russia-NATO Council, they insist that Ukraine should be the number one item on the agenda. We went there a couple of times and listened to what they had to say. We are aware of all this. So, we proposed restoring contacts between our respective militaries in order to save that very comprehensive security agreement signed in Helsinki. They refuse to do so.
The OSCE economy issues are struggling as well. Our EU colleagues are reluctant to get involved in them, but focus strongly on human rights instead. It would be sad to see the Gulf situation end that way. I doubt it, though, given the specifics of the countries we are talking about and their relations with the West. There is still hope that events will take a more positive course. We must not forget that Russia is proposing an inclusive process. The inertia inherited from the previous US administration, which considered all regional problems through the anti-Iranian lens and focused on gathering coalitions of Arabs, Israel, and the West against Iran, is still going strong.
The Biden administration has sent a hopeful sign where some kind of a compromise solution may be found in order to break the deadlock around the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and to begin to consider other concerns. We are strongly in favour of this approach. However, the West will want to restore the JCPOA, but not in its previous form. They would want to introduce extra restrictions on the missile programme, to see how Iran may change its policies in that region, and to extend the JCPOA beyond the timeframe set and approved by the UN Security Council in the original version. Iran insists on restoring the JCPOA in its previous form, and discussing mutual claims only after that. This makes perfect sense. Restoring the JCPOA as it was, without any appendages, makes it possible to simultaneously begin the security and cooperation process in the region. If someone has something to tell Iran as part of these talks, go ahead and lay your complaints on the table, but Iran will also come up with its complaints regarding its neighbours and Western countries. This is only fair. Inclusivity is the key word here. I hope that the anti-Iranian inertia of the initial period will give way to common sense, and the idea of creating a “Middle Eastern NATO” or “Asian NATO” will become a thing of the past. We have enough of NATO as it is. As the idea of a Middle Eastern NATO is gradually falling into oblivion, the idea of an Asian NATO, on the contrary, is beginning to gain traction through the Indo-Pacific strategies. The difference lies in the worldviews and the continuity of the Trump administration and the Biden administration’s policies. Even though President Trump pushed the Indo-Pacific strategy forward, the emphasis has now shifted to promoting bloc-based approaches in the Asia-Pacific region. Hopefully, we will be able to start a Middle Eastern process that will include all participants. We welcome the normalisation of relations between a number of Arab countries and Israel. We believe that negotiations and friendship, or at least neighbourliness, are much better than sliding into confrontation and conflicts. We hope this will not undermine the efforts to resolve the Palestinian problem, for which we can also see an encouraging sign coming from Washington. As opposed to the previous administration, which wanted to do everything itself and had no interest in resuming the Quartet of international mediators, the Biden administration, which is now forming its Middle East team, has outlined its support for the two-state solution (this is already an important statement), and announced its willingness to resume its participation in the work of the Quartet. We are in the process of building these contacts. I hope we will be able to obtain positive results here too.
There was also a question about Syria. We do not see UNSC Resolution 2254 as requiring any elections to be held following the approval of a new constitution.
The Constitutional Committee is in session. When Geir Pedersen was appointed to this position, he clearly indicated in his contacts with Russia the understanding that the Constitutional Committee cannot have any artificial timeframe for completing its work.
Speaking at a conference on Syrian refugees yesterday, the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell said that only the Syrians themselves can reach an agreement among themselves. Correct, but the current process, which allows the Syrians to negotiate directly, was launched at the initiative of Russia, Turkey and Iran. The Astana format played a decisive role here. Notably, before this format was created, the talks held under the auspices of the UN came to a dead end. For an entire year, former Special Envoy of the UN Secretary General for Syria Staffan de Mistura cited either Ramadan or other reasons. He simply wasn’t convening these negotiating groups and rounds. Back then, the Astana Trio, which was already operational, came up with an initiative to hold a Congress of the Syrian people in Sochi. Documents were adopted at this Congress, which were then used as a basis for the UN action.
Let’s see how the West comments on the Assad government. If someone says they are ready to cooperate with Assad, they put forward many impracticable prerequisites. Most of the approaches are based on the requirement for regime change. In the West, they are openly saying that al-Assad has no future in Syria, and they have also been hindering the creation of the Constitutional Committee.
When Staffan de Mistura finally agreed with the opposition on the 150 names: 50 from the government, 50 from the opposition and 50 from civil society (it was in late 2018, I believe), he invited the three foreign ministers of the Astana Trio, who were behind the idea of creating the Constitutional Committee, to come to Geneva. There, we, together with Staffan de Mistura, were supposed to solemnly announce the creation of the Constitutional Committee. As we were flying to Geneva, he received a phone call from New York and they told him that Western countries didn’t want Staffan de Mistura to announce the names of the people on the committee, because there were six names that caused concern in the West, even though the opposition was okay with them. Representatives of France, Great Britain and Germany at the UN even wrote a letter to UN Secretary-General Antonio Gutteres demanding that he does not approve the names agreed with Staffan de Mistura.
Because of this, we lost a year early on when the Constitutional Committee became operational. So, if the West is unhappy with the Constitutional Committee’s slow performance, let it learn the lesson and act more constructively in the future. There’s nothing tragic about the fact that the Constitutional Committee may be functioning slowly. Recently, we spoke with UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for Syria Geir Pedersen. We also spoke with the Assad government and the opposition. We are encouraging them to move towards one another.
The next meeting, which, we hope, will take place before the holy month of Ramadan, should break new ground, since for the first time it has been agreed that a direct meeting will take place between the heads of the pro-government and opposition delegations. Mr Pedersen welcomed this agreement, which we helped to achieve. I really hope it will get implemented.
Syria is coming under more attacks and sanctions every day. The Caesar Act has been openly announced as a way to strangle Syria’s economy and force the people to rise against their government. The West’s request to us to make the Damascus delegation act more constructively looks cynical. This consumerist approach to politics shows itself in almost any regional or functional crisis in international relations whereby they encourage us to take action while they sit back and tell us whether we did a good job or not.
If all of us are interested in the Syrians agreeing on their future themselves, they should be given such an opportunity and time to do so. Speaking figuratively, the political moats in Syria turned out to be quite deep, and we need to help the Syrians overcome them, teach them how to be friends, to start talking and agree on how they can live together in one state.
The main hurdles on this path include the illegal occupation by the United States of the eastern bank of the Euphrates River and creation of the Al-Tanf military outpost. Moreover, the West is literally throwing tantrums as it demands the preservation of cross-border mechanisms with regard to humanitarian aid delivery to the Idlib de-escalation zone, which precludes any participation of the government, or even keeping it in the loop about what’s going on, allegedly in order to keep Idlib breathing freely, but it insists on humanitarian aid being delivered from Damascus when it comes to Al-Tanf located on the border with Iraq. We keep telling them: “If you are staying there illegally and sending supplies directly from Iraq to your troops who are occupying this area, go ahead and bring supplies to the refugees in these camps.” There are lots of double standards here.
The presence of the United States, which they have now announced, will be perpetuated; at least no timeframe for withdrawing the troops has been set which is nothing new, either. The Americans are in charge of their own word, and they can either keep it, or go back on it. First, they announced the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, and then changed their minds. They want to stay in Syria as well. They are operating hydrocarbon fields, selling locally produced grain and using the proceeds – the money rightfully owned by the Syrian people – to pay for the separatist actions of some Kurdish organisations and to block the dialogue between the Kurds and Damascus, and they are doing their utmost to prevent this dialogue from ever taking place. At the same time, they are saying ISIS is rearing its head in the territories that are not controlled by the Syrian government. This is some kind of a kingdom of crooked mirrors.
Let’s not forget that ISIS was created by the United States in the wake of its aggression against Iraq which wreaked such havoc in that country that a large number of countries and peoples are still reeling from its aftermath. ISIS was created after the Baath party and the police and the army were disbanded. Paul Bremer was in charge of Iraq as governor-general back then, and no one gave him any instructions. Subsequently, ISIS was widely used and continues to be used by the United States to hinder the processes that will lead to a settlement in Syria with the full-fledged participation of the current government.
Regime change as an objective has not gone anywhere. Based on these approaches, the Syrian government is unlikely to be seen gleefully accepting every invitation to come to Geneva. What happened yesterday and the day before yesterday during the Brussels online conference on refugees in Syria is a very serious problem, including for the UN. When, in November, the Syrian government invited its foreign partners, including the UN, to a conference designed to create proper conditions for the return of refugees to their homes, the Americans spared no effort to minimise the number of countries that would accept the invitation. However, some countries, such as the UAE and Algeria, sent their delegations. This is a blatant case of privatising international organisations. The United States used pressure to force the UN to attend the conference on the return of refugees to Syria only as an observer. That is, the UN was not a full-fledged participant.
More recently, the European Union was holding a conference in conjunction with the UN (Antonio Gutteres personally designated the approaches). He said the right things. The only thing I don’t really understand is why the conference dedicated to the return of refugees to Syria, was attended only by an observer on behalf of the UN.
In turn, the Brussels conference was dedicated to raising funds, primarily, in order to provide for the refugees staying in camps in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon, as well as to help people in areas that are not controlled by the Syrian government. In other words, this conference was originally convened with a gross violation of international humanitarian law, which presupposes the solution to all issues of the kind in direct contact with the government of the state in question. This is a double standard. When you compare the Western response to the conference on the return of refugees to Syria and the way it was holding its own conference without even sending an invitation to official Damascus, put yourself in the shoes of President Assad and his government.
Question: The 30th anniversary of the Madrid Conference, a landmark date for the Middle East, will be marked soon. This conference paved the way for the Middle East peace process and was followed by the Moscow conference that marked the creation of useful working groups for security, economic development and water resources. These issues have become highly relevant with the water crisis being aggravated. How realistic would it be to approve the initiatives to revive such working groups on water resources? Is it too soon to do that or not?
Sergey Lavrov: I recently read an article in Kommersant that quoted your proposals. I believe it was very important at the time when the creation of working groups was agreed upon. It is possible that they could be useful today as well, although the time has passed and it is always important to adjust former ideas to the current environment.
The water crisis will not be resolved. Obviously, when relations between Israel and Palestine are normalised, this issue will be discussed alongside the problems of refugees and other issues. We stand for direct talks. As I said, we are ready to provide a platform for talks. Several years ago, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asked us to invite him and the President of Palestine Mahmoud Abbas to meet in Moscow without any preconditions. We prepared the meeting, but then, unfortunately, our Israeli colleagues asked to postpone it several times. We did not want to be pushy, so we told the Israeli party that we would wait until they were ready. As I said, the restoration of the Middle East Quartet’s efforts is a reassuring sign.
We firmly believe that it is realistic and even necessary to involve Arab countries in this process. The 4+4+2+1 mechanism is being discussed informally; 4 stands for the international quartet, plus four Arab countries that have normalised their relations with Israel (Egypt, Jordan, the UAE and Bahrain), 2 stands for the two conflicting parties, Israel and Palestine, and +1 is Saudi Arabia as the author of the Arab Peace Initiative approved by the UN Security Council. We feel that it would be beneficial to hold informal consultations in this format. If we reach any agreements that use the experience of the Moscow conference and the experience of those working groups, we would be happy.
Question: (retranslated from English) I represent the Swiss Centre for Global Dialogue. Every day that passes without a return to the JCPOA complicates the situation. Is it still possible to revive the JCPOA today, or are we saying it is the end of this comprehensive agreement?
Sergey Lavrov: Let me summarise the matter briefly. There are several problems. First, who will take the initial step to get back on track? Iran demands that the Americans lift all sanctions, and after that Tehran will take a few days to restore all the parameters that the original JCPOA version required it to comply with. The Americans insist on first reviving the JCPOA, and then they will think about which sanctions to relax or what other things to do. The second problem is the JCPOA plus. That implies not just reviving the JCPOA, but also changing (extending, of course) the duration of the restrictions imposed on Iran, and adding the missile programme, and Iran's so-called ‘behaviour in the region’ into the bargain. I believe this is a dead-end approach. We support the JCPOA being restored as approved by the Security Council, without any modifications; at the same time, negotiations should begin on a security and cooperation system in and around the Gulf region. And missiles can also be discussed as part of that conversation – not only Iranian ones, but the missile problem in general. And how the countries in the region see their roles in various crisis situations – here, too, there are mutual concerns, not one-sided ones. I think this is a fair proposal. I also know that our French colleagues are mediating there. As for reviving the JCPOA in its primary original version, it is also important who will take the first step. We have proposed an informal roadmap in which both Iran and the United States will return, step by step, to respecting their commitments. Our French colleagues are helping to formulate the content of those steps, especially the first step, which should launch the process of reviving the JCPOA in full. I will not go into details now. There are no secrets. It is just negotiations are now underway and it is better not to make the details public yet.
Question: Thank you for your explanation and for paying attention to these topics, the problems of the Middle East as a whole and, in particular, the problems of Palestine. People in Palestine appreciate the efforts Russia is making to stimulate the activity of the Quartet. In this context, I would like to say that this format skidded during the Trump administration. Instead, they started promoting a different format, the so-called “deal of the century.” I believe that the Quartet’s efforts have largely helped to foil the American plan. In this connection, we would like to speak about Israel’s annexation of the occupied Palestinian territories. A new international “climate” has developed since the US elections. The new US administration has sent out a number of signals, quite obvious ones, indicating that it was abandoning Trump’s strategy. They hinted that the new administration supported the two-state principle and would take efforts to restore peace. The Americans say they support the idea of holding talks, reopening a US consulate in Jerusalem and a Palestinian representative office in Washington, and resuming US assistance to the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). They claim that there are some technical problems hindering this. There is also the Taylor Force Act and problems in the US Senate created by the designation of our organisation as terrorist. We also agree with you that the Quartet should be expanded, but you are aware that the Americans and Europeans are against this. They have proposed expanding the format of consultations to the 4+4+2+1 formula. Expanding the format is very important for the Palestinians. This would end the US monopoly on being the only guarantor of the agreements. Palestinians will never agree to resume US-led direct bilateral talks. This topic is not even on our agenda, that is, in this format. We hope that you will bring about a fundamental change so that the Quartet resumes its activities and, if possible, that the Palestinian question is discussed within the framework of the Quartet.
Sergey Lavrov: I have commented on all of this in great detail. I can only add that the 4+4+2+1 formula is a Russian initiative. It is a Russian idea, and it has not been rejected by the West, the UN, the EU or Palestinians. We are discussing it. First we waited for the outcome of elections in Israel. We know them now, and so we are turning off the standby mode. I believe that at this stage we can already start establishing contacts, but I also understand those who say that we can hardly hope Israel to take any stand, even if such contacts are established, until the domestic situation is settled. The “deal of the century” has indeed become a thing of the past, alongside the planned annexation of a considerable part of Palestinian territories. The dangers of the “deal of the century” scenario are obvious to Israel as well, including to the parties that make up the coalition. If that scenario had materialised, Israel would have to do one of the following two things: either grant citizenship to all those who are living in the annexed territories, which spells the demise of Israel as the Jewish state in the foreseeable future, or create an apartheid state as an alternative solution. I am quite sure that Israel, a civilised nation that remembers such examples from our past, is not ready for the latter. There is nothing more to say. We will continue working. We welcome the plans announced by the Biden administration, including reopening the Palestinian office in Washington and returning to the UNRWA. I agree with you that we must keep working towards this.
Question: Mr Lavrov, what is our strategy for Afghanistan and our fundamental approach to settling the Afghan crisis?
Sergey Lavrov: Our strategy is no secret. We are promoting it openly. It is an intra-Afghan congress attended by all of Afghanistan’s neighbours and other key regional countries. We call it the Moscow Format. It involves not only the direct neighbours of Afghanistan, but also all Central Asian states, China, Pakistan, India, Iran, Russia and the United States. We believe that it is a sufficiently representative structure capable of discussing any topics and finding solutions. On the other hand, it is reasonably compact compared to conferences that bring together between 30 and 40 countries, many of which are seen as potential financial donors for future peace agreements. The Troika was created as an instrument for promoting the Moscow Format. The Russia-US-China Troika is not a separate format but an auxiliary tool of the Moscow Format; we have developed a constructive business-like process within the framework of the Troika despite serious problems in relations between the three parties.
Their representatives held several meetings. After that, we agreed to promote extended Troika consultations, to which we invited Pakistan and Iran. Pakistani representatives attended them, whereas Iran said it was willing to attend but, considering its problems with the Americans, it would be “awkward” for them to sit at the same table and hold discussions together with the Americans at this stage. We can understand this.
On March 18, 2021, we held an extended Troika meeting in Moscow together with Pakistan and invited Jordan and Qatar to it as well. The most important thing is that representatives of nearly all sections of Afghan society attended that meeting: the Taliban, the Government, the High Council for National Reconciliation (chaired by Abdullah Abdullah) and representatives of the ethnic minorities (Tajiks, Hazaras and Uzbeks). It was a very fruitful meeting. If the Doha talks meet the parties’ interests, we will actively support them. The Doha talks were marking time during the Moscow meeting. Following the consultations in Moscow, Afghans thanked us for holding them, because they believe that the contacts between the Afghan parties held on the sidelines of that event allow them to look to the future with optimism.
A Ministerial Conference of the Heart of Asia – Istanbul Process on Afghanistan was held in Dushanbe on March 30, 2021. We are analysing its outcome. President Ashraf Ghani made an interesting statement there. If I understand press reports regarding this correctly, he is willing to organise elections, and if it all comes down to him, he is ready to “hand over authority.” We are reading the press, but it is more important to analyse the official text to see what it really means. We need peace in Afghanistan. We are ready to continue helping Kabul create and strengthen its security forces. They are currently the weak link, unable to fulfil counterterrorism tasks, let alone deal with drug-related problems without outside assistance. The drug business is flourishing there, and we know that the drug business is the main source of funding for terrorists. We would like to see this problem settled. This can only be done through intra-Afghan agreements.
In February 2020, we welcomed the agreement reached between Washington and the Taliban. First of all, we believed that it could open the door to a ceasefire and put an end to fratricide, because the war against ISIS is not over yet. ISIS is becoming entrenched there, including in close proximity to Central Asia. Second, we hoped that the agreement would help launch talks and create common Afghan bodies of power. This depended on the withdrawal of US troops by May 1, 2021. Washington is now revising that commitment and, judging by how this process is being reported, the US troops and some of their NATO allies will remain in Afghanistan for some time. This will create a new situation. The Taliban have promised to respond accordingly if Washington unilaterally revises its commitments. Regrettably, many efforts have been made and many formats created; the course of action seems to be clear, but every time we see a new situation that either wrecks or seriously slows down these efforts.
Question: There are two as yet unmentioned conflict hotspots left in the Middle East – Libya and Yemen. For Libya, there seem to be some bright prospects (at least, opportunities). Russia has played a significant role in their emergence, and everyone acknowledges this. In Yemen, the situation is rather sad, although there are some factors that might give rise to optimistic scenarios there. One of them was the UAE pulling out from hostilities and declaring its commitment to peace initiatives. Saudi Arabia is proposing initiatives, for example, to unfreeze fuel supplies. How might Russia’s position on these topics change?
Sergey Lavrov: Regarding Yemen, we have been working very closely in a format that Russia helped create, with the West and other players. It operates from the Saudi capital. The Russian Ambassador to Yemen has been based in Riyadh for several years, since the crisis broke out and we transferred the Embassy there. He communicates regularly with other external actors who are helping the UN achieve a settlement. I hope that the latest changes will help us work more productively on this track. The Saudi Arabian initiative was discussed during my visit to Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. As Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan said, the UAE is now entering a trajectory where they do not want to have a single enemy, around their country or elsewhere in the world. We welcome this approach.
The Saudi initiative received a lukewarm response from the Houthis. Next, the UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for Yemen Martin Griffiths gave it a try. He tried to incorporate the Saudi approaches into his ideas and at the same time take into account the Houthis’ interests. One of the components of his initiative, which seems to be shared by Saudi Arabia, is a reopening of the airport in Sana'a along with the port of Hodeidah. I think there is work to be done there. We are in contact with all parties and are trying to encourage them to reach an agreement.
As for Libya, some processes there began after the Berlin Conference and have now resulted in agreements. All of them were welcomed, although there were some pitfalls. Many still express concern because those agreements were reached by a 75-member forum in Geneva, a format created by acting Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Libya Stephanie Williams. Even at that stage, Libya did not fully understand the criteria by which those 75 people were chosen. The announcement of specific names for the Presidential Council members and for the head of government came as an even greater surprise. Nobody expected such election results. Maybe that was good, a surprise for everyone. I have spoken with the head of the Libyan Presidential Council Mohammad al-Menfi and Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah. I looked at their track record – both are quite experienced people. We assume that there is an agreement, reached in parallel with the appointment of those interim leaders, to hold elections on December 24, 2021. I do not know how feasible the specific date would be in the Libyan context. A few years ago, the elections were also scheduled for an exact date and that never worked out. But we will do everything to make it work. We believe the elections should be held in such a way as to satisfy all Libyan political forces and heavyweights such as Fayez al-Sarraj, Khalifa Haftar, Khalifa al-Ghawil and our other colleagues who have come to Moscow more than once. It is imperative that the interests of the Libyan National Army leaders and representatives of the Gaddafi regime be taken into account. Everyone is aware of this now. Such inclusiveness would help launch a sustainable peace process at the earliest opportunity. We will do our best to help.
We have been accused of not doing anything in Libya, or not doing what we should be doing. We are ready to cooperate constructively, but we always ask other parties not to forget where this crisis came from and how it ultimately happened – it was NATO aggression in violation of the UN Security Council resolution. The flows of refugees now pouring into Europe are a direct result of what was done. The same holds true for the flows of weapons and terrorists, crossing Libya to move southward into the Sahara-Sahel zone where they continue to cause trouble.
When solving immediate problems, it is also important to draw conclusions for the future. Iraq has been devastated, and now they are trying to put it back together with great difficulty. The same is happening in Libya. They tried to do it in Syria as well. With all due respect to all the calls to us to “let bygones be bygones”, we do need to remember the bygones, not in order to hurt someone emotionally, but in order to avoid suffering that entails losing hundreds of thousands of lives in the future.
We are being invited to discuss the Libyan refugee problem (or other refugee flows provoked by the Libyan aggression), and before that, we were asked to sign a document that contained a commitment to ‘shared responsibility’ for resolving refugee problems. We apologised and said we had not created this problem and were not going to share the blame for what happened.
During these discussions at international platforms, the question was raised as to how the EU could solve the refugee and illegal migration problem in such a way as to address the root cause, not the symptoms. A question was asked – why won’t the EU cancel duties on agricultural products from Africa? These are being taxed, if I understand it correctly. But, in line with the EU’s own agricultural policy, they do not want competition in the food markets because there is already oversupply there. It is a complicated topic. If the duties were lifted, it would have given a significant impetus to agriculture and the food industry, including through exports to African countries, and would have created additional jobs. This is just one example. There are many cases where the international community is concerned about the symptoms, not the disease or the essence of the problem.
Question: The Biden-Blinken team seems to act in some ways more professionally in the Middle East. There are signs of a realistic policy. You have spoken in detail about the Palestinian track. Can we also expect any shifts from this team, towards greater realism in relation to the Syrian Kurds, for example?
Sergey Lavrov: It is a challenging issue. Apart from Syria, there is also a regional dimension to it. A year and a half ago, I was in Erbil. The Iraqi Kurds, the Barzani clan expressed concerns about how the Kurds situation in neighbouring Syria could develop, and were eager to share the experience of coexistence, cohabitation within one state if they were given some authority, somewhere between cultural and national autonomy. It is a complicated topic. It is painful, too, also because there is no unity within the Syrian Kurds. There are groups there that do not hide their cooperation with the Kurdistan Workers' Party. There are other groups that the Americans are trying to reconcile with various movements that are friendly to them. Turkey is giving a hostile reception to everything that is happening. As far as I understand it, they are in a dialogue with the Americans to find compromises. The Americans are trying to convince them not to dismiss everyone as terrorists. But for us, it is fundamentally important (this was repeatedly mentioned in documents signed by Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan) that we, together with Turkey, firmly advocate Syria’s unity and territorial integrity.
We recently held a new trilateral consultation between the foreign ministers of Russia, Turkey, and Qatar in Doha. A joint statement was adopted that clearly reiterated that commitment. It also stipulated the unacceptability of any attempts to encourage separatism in Syria. The dialogue between the Government and the Kurds is not easy. It is not sustainable. But there are contacts.
When Donald Trump announced the pullout from Syria, the Kurds immediately asked us to try to help them build bridges with Damascus. Two days later, Trump changed his mind or someone said he had changed his mind. And the Kurds immediately lost interest in contacts with Damascus and reinstated contact with the Americans as the main ‘guarantors’ of their well-being.
We are in contact with various Syrian groups. We recently received Ms Ilham Ahmed, a co-chair of the Executive Board of the Syrian Democratic Council, who visited Moscow. We have contacts with Mazloum Abdi, the Commander-in-Chief of the Syrian Democratic Forces. We are ready to help. But love cannot be forced, and they are still hesitating between working out long-term and stable agreements with Damascus and hopes that the Americans (who decided to stay after all) will help somehow. The Americans, meanwhile, have banned everyone from supplying any economic goods or even humanitarian aid to the territories controlled by the Government. They are busy developing the eastern bank of the Euphrates where they are located. They are creating local authorities there, using the proceeds from selling their loot such as hydrocarbons, grain, etc. They are also insisting that Syria's Arab neighbours invest in those territories. The open pursuit of this kind of policy naturally raises serious questions. If their strategy is to establish, if not heaven on earth, then a good and prosperous life on the eastern bank, while making every effort to ensure that people in the rest of country (controlled by the Government) become impoverished and overthrow the hateful regime, then we can probably conclude what kind of goals the United States have pursued, at least until recently.
No big changes have been noticed so far, but I assume their policy is yet in the making. I spoke with many of my colleagues about the US Caesar Act. Few agree that this was the right move. In fact, it prohibits any business with Damascus and is written in such a way as to make any step you take, even with the best intentions and with mediation purposes, can entail secondary sanctions against you. I hope the signals Washington is receiving now (and I know that they are coming from some states directly interested in stabilising Syria) will be heeded and will produce an effect.
Question: We are witnessing a frozen conflict taking shape in Syria. In your opinion, what are the dangers of maintaining the status quo?
Sergey Lavrov: It could lead to the disintegration of the country, which would be tragic, including, in part, due to the Kurdish factor, which will immediately become a regional issue. The consequences are unpredictable. We are trying to avoid this scenario. I agree that it looks like a frozen conflict.
Question: One of the previous questions was related to the dialogue between Iran and the Arab states of the Persian Gulf. There is a Russian plan and a Chinese one. Iran says it is ready to begin the dialogue. What is standing in the way?
Sergey Lavrov: I already spoke about this. There is also a French proposal on patrolling the Strait of Hormuz.
Nobody says no, but the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf still does not have a consensus on the readiness to such a dialogue with Iran. This is a crucial aspect. Everything else, such as configurations and external players, is not a problem. I think it would be much easier to deal with these issues than to ensure the readiness of all the six Arab nations of the Persian Gulf to start a direct dialogue with Iran, as we hope, without any preconditions. There has been some progress. I discussed it in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and in Qatar. I felt that Riyadh was also contemplating moving in this direction. I do not want to take wild guesses, but this is the sense I got.
Question: What can you tell us about the development of Russia-Turkey relations in the context of tensions in Idlib? What solutions can be found there? Will they be permanent or temporary?
Sergey Lavrov: Russia-Turkey relations are strong at the top level and have a substantive agenda. We have many joint projects. President of Russia Vladimir Putin has commented on them more than once. He always emphasises that we do not have a common position on many issues, and that we sometimes have serious differences. That said, we appreciate our relations because we can always find a solution with our Turkish colleagues that suits both them and us. This is typical for the meetings of our presidents. I can also confirm this as regards meetings at the foreign minister-level.
We have a protocol on Idlib that our presidents agreed upon a couple of years ago. It is being fulfilled slower than planned but our Turkish partners confirm all their commitments under this protocol, including the disengagement of the armed opposition members that cooperate with Turkey from Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham and other terrorists who continue shelling Syrian army positions and try to attack our Hmeimim base from the Idlib zone.
Now, regarding what has been done, Turkey removed its observation posts from the territories left by opposition members. The protocol envisaged this move. Now work is underway to implement in full the agreement on the M-4 motorway. This agreement provides for establishing a security zone running six km to the north and south. There should be no armed opposition groups in this zone and Russian-Turkish joint convoys must regularly patrol it. Some progress was achieved on this road but then the process stalled. Now we are redressing this situation. This will be done, but eventually the bottom line is to disengage the above forces to prevent the terrorists from using people as shields and to eliminate the terrorists. There is no alternative to this.
There is one alarming point, though. It started under the Donald Trump administration when US Special Envoy for Syria James Jeffrey said in public that Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham is not that bad after all. He did this at a time when the UN Security Council officially listed it as a terrorist group and tried to sell this idea to the UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for Syria Geir Pedersen’s team. This is an alarming point that confirms what we discussed a few minutes ago. It is for a reason that America complains about the revival of ISIS on government-controlled territories.
As for our relations with Turkey, they are not easy. They are difficult, but it is always better to negotiate something with a person that can influence a specific situation and has different views. Our Western colleagues talk about “a ruled-based world order.” It reflects a clear trend whereby the West has to promote its approaches in universal formats, which are sometimes opposed by Russia, China and other countries. They find it more comfortable to discuss such issues with their own associates. They agree on something, present these agreements as decisions of the international community and demand that every country abide by them. We have already discussed the French initiative to create a partnership against impunity as regards chemical arms although the OPCW already exists. What is the goal of the proposed partnership? There are also initiatives on freedom of information even though UNESCO has agencies that deal with this issue. There are initiatives on protecting human rights but in parallel, the EU creates unilateral mechanisms for sanctions. Thus, the partnership created outside the UN is supposed to accuse someone of violating the rights it has established. The EU then declares who is guilty and imposes sanctions on them. This is just a closed-door deal. It is important to prevent approaches like this from being used in any situation. The assumption that it is possible to come to terms with terrorists is highly alarming. At this point, we are waiting for Washington to put its team on Syria together. We had diplomatic contacts in addition to the de-conflict mechanism used by the military. We are not evading these.